American Counseling Association
Parents are naturally proud when their children are well behaved. When our children play well with others, responsibly complete family chores, and interact politely with adults, we feel we’ve done a pretty reasonable job of child rearing. But getting our children to be well behaved is not always a simple task.
Children learn behaviors through the consequences that various behaviors bring. If a child earns a reward for doing something well, he’s learned it’s a positive consequence. Poor behavior that brings a punishment is a negative consequence. Over time, as either consequence is repeated, it can lead to changes in behavior.
This seems simple enough, but there are actually some complicating factors. Research has found that rewards, those pleasant, positive consequences, are more effective in changing behaviors than unpleasant consequences – or punishments. Such rewards might be tangible, such as a toy or book or favorite food, or intangible, such as praise for a task well done. But regardless of the type of reward, how it is used is important if it is to be effective.
It’s advised to reward only occasionally. When a child figures out that an award or gift will be provided, he or she might produce the desired behavior only if certain the reward is forthcoming.
It’s also important that the reward happens immediately after the desired behavior. Delaying a reward loses its motivational power for most children.
Effective rewarding also means rewarding effort, not just performance. A reward is earned when a child is truly trying to complete a task, even if he or she falls short of the desired goal.
For rewards to be effective, it can help to give children a say in what rewards matter to them. And you want to have a variety of rewards. The repeated use of the same one can cause it to lose its value.
Effective rewarding isn’t just tangible rewards. Positive compliments matter, and when using a tangible reward you increase its effectiveness by combining it with a positive word or touch.
Rewards shouldn’t be bribes. Children who perform desired behaviors only to earn prizes aren’t really growing and learning to mature positively. It’s important that rewards aren’t the only motivation to perform, because over time rewards will lose their value. But they can be a valuable way to encourage short-term behaviors and are often more effective than using threats and punishment to discourage unwanted ones.
The Counseling Corner is provided by the American Counseling Association. Comments and questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.counseling.org.